As a colored girl growing up during the 1950s and 1960s, I never expected to come face to face with blatant racism in my little town in the 21st century. Here’s why:
Punta Gorda, a small town on the Southwest coast of Florida has been described as having a “unique sociology”. This is because of the biracial settlement and development of the town. While state Jim Crow laws were enforced, Jim Crow customs were often disregarded by the original white settlers. In 1885, Florida passed some of the most severe Jim Crow laws, yet in 1887, four of the 34 men to incorporate the town were colored landowners. Yes, four of the founding fathers of Punta Gorda were colored. Colored participated in all aspects of the economic and civic development of the town. Though Jim Crow laws allowed colored to only serve white patrons, colored businesses were located on the main business street, Marion Avenue.
One of the most wealthy men in Punta Gorda was colored. George Brown, owner of the Cleveland Marine Steamways is said to own half of Punta Gorda. He sold the land on which the old courthouse was located when Charlotte County was formed. In pure violation of Jim Crow customs, white men worked for colored George Brown at his shipyard, and in another violation he paid equal wages to white and colored.
Unlike other newspapers in surrounding areas, the Punta Gorda Herald referred to colored citizens, wrote of their industriousness, and used the title “Mr.” in referring to some prominent colored men. During these early years, biracial respect and unity prevailed. There were close friendships between white and colored, friendships that still endure to this day.
Changes began to come to Punta Gorda with newcomers in the late 1920s, who brought more stringent Jim Crow attitudes with them. A Ku Klux Klan chapter was established here in 1927. However, I must say as a colored girl growing up in Punta Gorda, I was never afraid, as the KKK never rode through our neighborhood banishing crosses or harassing us. In fact, on weekends, colored came to Punta Gorda to our small but very prosperous business district called “Down the Street” because they were not harassed by the police or other whites.
The state Jim Crow laws were now paramount and obeyed by both whites and colored. As a result, despite paying taxes colored had no access to public facilities. In the 1960s, the Charlotte County NAACP and community members petitioned the city to provide recreational facilities for colored children. After much discussion and haggling, a building was given to the colored community, simply an empty building. Community members gave their time and money to buy chairs, other furnishings, and equipment for the center. Because of the traditional cultural value of “giving back”, the community developed a high caliber center not only for the children but the entire community.
The Women’s Coalition began tutoring and etiquette classes for children, community males organized programs related to sports, and traditional African American “stepping”. Because of the core value of intergenerational transmission of values, the mission of the center was expanded to include wedding receptions, repasses after funerals, family reunions, church meetings, club meetings, Black History Month celebrations, and activities to honor elders and children in the community.
In recent years, whites began tutoring at the center and even some joined the Cooper Street board. The center became more inclusive and began to serve the entire Charlotte County community rather than the predominately historically black community in which it is located. This is how the Cooper Street board came to have a white president, Dr. David Klein.
Dr. Klein recently died, and the new 2023 Jim Crow came into full fruition. The Punta Gorda City Council made the decision to eliminate the Black Board and its management of the Cooper Street Center. According to their statements and reasoning: “There’s no leadership at the Cooper Street Rec Center after the death of Dr. Klein. The current black president of the Cooper Street board, however, has a degree from Dartmouth, was a businessman in Asia for twenty years, and served three terms on the Punta Gorda City Council. The other board members and community advisors are educators."
Secondly, the City Council desires to give leadership and management of Cooper Street to the white-led YMCA that is experiencing financial losses due to the loss of its premises resulting from Hurricane Ian. Cooper Street would provide the YMCA with a financial source for its fee-based programs.
Thirdly, the members of the City Council cannot understand if Cooper Street is serving a public purpose, despite its sublease to the YMCA, Small Business Development Center, Career Resource Library, African American Resource Library, and entrepreneurial programs. The City has expressed its goal as: “ The end goal is to maintain a public purpose as defined by the council that will retain the high-caliber programmatic benefit to the community that has always been intended by the city.”
These blatant and unfair denunciations of the Black Cooper Street Board, leadership, and management of a historically black-run community center raise very serious questions.
- Do Punta Gorda City Council members believe the stereotypical myths about black intellectual inferiority, irresponsibility, and incompetence, core tenants of Jim Crow philosophy and white supremacy?
- Do Punta Gorda City Council members believe that blacks are incapable of functioning and managing their affairs without white oversight? Is this the return of white paternalism of the 1950s?
- Do Punta Gorda City Council members believe that “public function” can only be defined and served by white leadership and control?
- Is the sacrifice of historical black leadership and control of a historically black center morally and ethically right as a way to provide financial recovery to a white-led organization?
- Does the need to maintain white supremacy justify the destruction of the legacy of a historical black center that served the community for over eighty years?
- Has Jim Crow returned to Punta Gorda in 2023? Does the current City Council understand that Punta Gorda was once a model for biracial understanding, respect, and even prosperity?
As a colored girl, I was happy and never tragically colored during the days of the old Jim Crow, as unfair as they were, but without the blatant disregard for the humanity of the colored community that the current Punta Gorda City Council is bestowing upon us.
This is just a small example of what is going on in America regarding its centuries-long inequality of justice.